Why you should care
Nothing makes you all feel warm and fuzzy inside like watching a grown man lifted off the ground by his testicles.
Some people watch football on Thanksgiving, others revel in annual roving balloon inflations, but for as long as I can remember my sister and I have a turkey-day tradition of watching Steve Martin go apeshit all over Edie McClurg in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
By the time the movie came out in 1987, director John Hughes had firmly established himself as the voice of a teenage generation. He encapsulated small-town dynamics via Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Emilio Esteves, Anthony Michael Hall and Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. He helped two teens bring a supermodel to life (Weird Science), then destroyed a priceless Ferrari (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). While all of his films were grossly tongue in cheek, the worlds he created never seemed to deviate very far from reality. And for this reason, they have become historical references and cultural cornerstones.
But it turns out Hughes was just warming up. Inspired by a personal delayed trip from Chicago to NYC, Hughes wrote, directed and produced Planes Trains and Automobiles, which is often referred to as his “magnum opus.”
Two grown-ass traveling men trying to get home for turkey are thrown together by a myriad of mishaps and evolve from strangers to foes and finally lifelong friends. Yes, you’ve heard variations of this film, but no, you’ve never seen it done like this.
Filmed throughout the rural Northwest with locals as extras, and locations employed to depict a non-glossy reality, Hughes went for an older cast and sent his characters on a stilted buddy journey. At the time, a grey-haired Steve Martin and a rotund John Candy were in the glory years of their careers. Both had deep roots on Saturday Night Live and were noted godfathers of sketch comedy. Hughes had established himself with the success of Ferris Buller and Sixteen Candles and with such comedic heavyweights in the cast, he was given carte blanche on this project.
Whether it’s old Coke cans, the comparative lack of airport security or the helium-filled, shower-curtain-earringed, crimped-haired teenagers, the movie paints a vivid cross-continent portrait of the late-’80s that lives only in my imagination. This is the part where people born in the ’70s scoff. I’ll wait.
Driving on the wrong side of the road because you made a wrong turn because you couldn’t get your winter coat off while driving your wood-paneled 1986 Chrysler LeBaron Town and Country. Yes! I get that! That’s totally me! Selling shower curtain rings as earrings to complete strangers because your credit cards were burned in a car fire that ensued from the aforementioned freeway collision/electrocution. Who has that NOT happened to? And not to glaze over that fact, but John Candy plays a shower-curtain-ring salesman, people. A profession as constant as Los Angeles cartography. Comedy gold.
The true beauty of this film is that the story can never be told again (not that it’s stopped Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifinkais from sadly trying). Today there is an app for every mishap that arises in the film. Nope, you’re not driving the wrong direction on the freeway because Apple, uh, Google maps would never send you that way. Your wallet didn’t survive a car fire? You call an Uber and get your ass back home to see your child’s face as you man up and cut that oven-roasted bird like a boss!
This is a sad 21st century reality. But I get by, channeling the strength of a woman whose baby came out sideways and “didn’t cry or nuthin’.”